(IPS) KINGSTON -- "Jamaica is sending a message to the superpowers. From a long time, it's the first time me see Jamaica take a stand, and me love it," says 46-year-old Gloria Simms.
For Simms, an "ordinary" Jamaican, her government's hosting of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a courageous act. Others, however, are questioning the wisdom of this small island state alienating its impoverished Caribbean neighbor, and possibly angering powerful nations like the United States, France and Canada.
Jamaica agreed to host Aristide on a return from a brief stay in the Central African Republic, the country to which he was flown after his controversial departure from Haiti on Feb. 29.
Aristide says he was kidnapped by U.S. security agents after being forced to sign a resignation letter; Washington says the ousted leader decided to go after learning his safety could not be guaranteed as well-armed rebels moved toward the capital Port-au-Prince after weeks of violence in the Caribbean nation of eight million people.
Jamaican officials have stressed that no "offer" was made to Aristide to come to this country, but that his request to stay temporarily on the island was granted based on "humanitarian" reasons -- so he could be reunited with his family while making arrangements for "permanent residence" elsewhere.
The government has defended its decision against criticisms such as that made by U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, who called the visit a "bad idea."
"We are convinced that our decision to receive Mr. Aristide, a former CARICOM colleague, on humanitarian grounds was a just and right one," Jamaican Prime Minister Percival Patterson told Parliament on Tuesday.
There has already been some diplomatic fall-out, with interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue announcing he was suspending diplomatic ties with Jamaica, and reconsidering his country's relationship with the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which has called for a probe into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Aristide's departure from Haiti.
Elsewhere in the region, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines called Jamaica's decision a "wonderful gesture."
But Barbados Foreign Minister Billie Miller told the Barbados House of Assembly that Jamaica informed her of Aristide's visit "after the fact," and although she could not pre-empt the CARICOM inter-sessional meeting next week where Haiti will be topic number one, there could be "implications."
Robert Maguire, an expert on Haiti at Trinity College in Washington, DC, says Jamaica could run afoul of countries like the United States.
"I assume they (Jamaican officials) have had frank discussions to identify the ground rules (for Aristide's stay in Jamaica), but everybody takes a chance with Mr. Aristide because he's unpredictable. But Jamaica can present itself as having done the right thing," Maguire says.
"It is quite clear that the U.S. is not happy with this. This certainly would cast a cloud over Jamaica-U.S. relations. But the U.S. cannot always have its cake and eat it too -- there are legitimate questions being raised about this," he adds.
The opposition Jamaica Labour Party is concerned about the possible fall-out for this country.
"It is a sort of diplomatic controversy that we would have done well to avoid," the party's chairman, Bruce Golding, told Radio Jamaica.
" For example, Mr. Aristide's lawyers ... made statements on Friday that following consultations with Mr. Aristide they're filing legal action against the United States government for allegedly removing him from Haiti against his will, and against four French officials ... for (alleged) complicity in his forced removal from Haiti."
"Now are those legal initiatives going to be pursued under his directive from his temporary domicile in Jamaica, and where is that going to put us in terms of an unnecessary diplomatic row?" asks Golding.
How Port-au-Prince has been handling the issue is shaping up to be another source of tension. Up to three days after he told the international press Haiti was suspending diplomatic relations with Jamaica, Latortue had still not conveyed that information to Kingston, according to Jamaican Foreign Affairs Minister Keith Knight.
The Foreign Ministry also noted that Jamaica had not officially recognised the interim government in Haiti, as the issue is slated for discussion at the CARICOM meeting of heads of government scheduled for St. Kitts, Mar. 25-26.
CARICOM Secretary General Edwin Carrington has noted, however, that the decision to host Aristide was a Jamaican one, and not a wise one, according to a group of Haitian non-governmental organizations (NGOs). "Mr Aristide's presence constitutes a real threat to the fledgling and fragile democratic process," the groups said in a statement released Monday.
"The welcoming of Aristide by PJ Patterson's government can be interpreted as a positive sign of CARICOM's independence from the USA, but in reality Mr Aristide's submission to Washington precludes us from regarding him as a serious ally against U.S. imperialism," added the groups, members of the Assembly of Caribbean People.
They urged the Caribbean people to help end the "military occupation" of Haiti.
Maguire is advising Latortue to tread more carefully. "If the quotes attributed to Mr. Latortue are correct, Mr. Latortue is treading dangerous diplomatic ground, especially someone who is a transitional figure," says Maguire. "That said, I can understand why he has heartburn -- this is this guy's first diplomatic challenge."
But Haiti expert Alex Dupuy says the diplomatic fuss is an over-reaction. "It seems as if the U.S. is making much ado about nothing," he says, and so is the new prime minister."
"This is rather a show of diplomatic immaturity on his part, especially given that there are foreign troops on the ground, and the Haitian population is not likely to rebel and do anything that will demand massive retaliation," adds Dupuy, from Wesleyan University.
Dupuy suggests Latortue's stance results from uncertainty. "It is a measure of how unsure the government is of where it stands with the Haitian population. It obviously has the support of the elite, but it remains to be seen if it can win over the majority of the population."
Maguire says deeper issues might be at stake. "CARICOM has been coming out with very strong language since Feb. 29. It seems to be saying that this is an example of big countries pushing around small countries, so it seems to me that this goes beyond Mr. Aristide."
Maguire suggests a number of possible diplomatic outcomes to the St. Kitts meeting. "I think that people have to count to 10, Mr. Latortue and Mr. Aristide too, and then I would imagine that CARICOM would find a way to engage in diplomatic relations and patch things up with a correct Haitian government.
"(But) this may remain an issue until there is a legitimately elected government in Haiti. That could be one scenario," adds Maguire.
Despite the controversy, Gloria Simms says for her, the issue is very simple. "It's like me in trouble and needing a friend, to help lighten the load."
"Me feel proud. The whole country must back Mr. Patterson on this; we must stand up behind him. Haiti is I and I (like us) -- what happened there could happen here," she adds.
March 16, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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